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Should Benton County separate the jail from the sheriff’s office? Commissioners may vote next week.

The Benton County Commission may create a new department to manage the 740-bed county jail. If approved, the move will turn the jail into a standalone department independent of the county sheriff.
The Benton County Commission may create a new department to manage the 740-bed county jail. If approved, the move will turn the jail into a standalone department independent of the county sheriff. Tri-City Herald

The Benton County Commission may vote next week on a resolution to create a new department to run the county jail.

Two commissioners appear ready to approve the measure, separating the 740-bed facility from the sheriff’s office.

The subject was not on the commission’s published agenda for Tuesday’s meeting and the board took no formal action. But the issue was raised by the Human Resources department, which was previously directed by the commission to draft a job description.

The board expects to consider the resolution when it meets at 9 a.m., Sept. 19, at the county courthouse in Prosser, 620 Market St.

While commissioners didn’t act on the issue, they invited Sheriff Jerry Hatcher to weigh in on jail operations. And he took the opportunity to cast the resolution as an election issue.

Hatcher, the recently appointed sheriff, is running against Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin to finish the term of former Sheriff Steve Keane, who stepped down for health reasons. Both candidates are Republicans.

Tuesday, Hatcher offered an impassioned defense of current jail management, including communications and budget.

But his remarks turned political when he said if Lattin wins the election, the commissioners should take over the jail.

“If the election goes the other way, absolutely you should go that way. The other candidate doesn’t have any (jail) experience,” he said during the meeting, which was open to the public and broadcast from Prosser to a viewing site at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick.

Lattin was not available Tuesday morning to respond.

If the election goes the other way, absolutely you should go that way. The other candidate doesn’t have any (jail) experience.

Sheriff Jerry Hatcher

Benton County first considered turning the jail into a standalone department independent of the sheriff’s office in April, saying the commission needs more control over the jail. In August, it agreed to ask a consultant to draft a job description for a jail commander. The job opening has not been posted.

Six Washington counties, including Spokane, Walla Walla and Yakima, have removed their jails from the control of their sheriffs. Those jails are run by executives who report to the counties’ elected leaders.

The argument for a separate jail department is that it provides a more direct link between commissioners responsible for the budget and the managers of the counties’ largest expense, their jails. The jail’s annual budget of $17 million makes it Benton County’s single largest expense, accounting for about a quarter of the operating budget.

But Hatcher and County Commissioner Shon Small, a former Benton County deputy, asked the other two commissioners to consider what they aim to accomplish by separating the jail.

Hatcher contrasted Benton and Yakima county jails, saying the jail he manages is the better-run operation.

He said the Benton facility will bring in up to $5 million in unexpected revenue this year by contracting with other agencies to house inmates. The jail’s budget is reviewed by the commission, he noted. The jail houses an average daily population of about 500.

“Benton County is one of the best run jails in the entire state,” he said. “We are doing things extremely well.”

Commission Chairman Jim Beaver and Commissioner Jerome Delvin have expressed support for establishing a county-level Department of Corrections.

Small has disagreed. He told his fellow commissioners that he wants an assessment of the potential benefits of an independent corrections department before making a decision.

Sheriff-run jails are the norm in the U.S. According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, sheriffs manage 85 percent of the nation’s roughly 3,300 county jails.

For sheriffs, the loss of control can be perceived as a demotion, but supporters say it gives sheriffs more time to focus on law enforcement.

If approved, the change should not significantly affect the Benton jail’s 110 employees, who are represented by Teamsters Local 839.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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